Lewis Carroll advises, through his creation the King of Hearts: “Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end. Then stop.”
The King of Hearts is speaking about telling a story aloud, to a listener. As novelists, we don’t always tell our story in chronological order, and that’s fine. But when we do break the King’s rule, we need to know why we’ve chosen to do that, and why it’s the best way to start this particular book.
A few things to keep in mind as we try to pin down that opening sentence and scene …
Principle #1: The beginning of the story is rarely the beginning of the POV character’s life (unless you begin with his birth). The character had a history and an existence before the events in the book occurred.
So where do we enter the character’s life? Before the key event happens, the one that launches the tale? Right smack in the middle of the event? Afterward, when the character is grappling with the consequences?
Take the first sentence of Barbara O’Neal’s novel When We Believed in Mermaids, as an example. “My sister has been dead for nearly fifteen years when I see her on the TV news.” This is the hinge, the moment when Kit’s world is upended. O’Neal opens her book right at the pivotal instant.
She could have begun in a different place, of course. She could have shown us Kit’s life as-it-is before the inciting incident occurred. Or she could have started with Kit boarding a plane to New Zealand where she will search for the sister she now thinks is alive—after the inciting incident—and reveal the events that led up to the plane ride bit-by-bit.
Kathryn Craft’s The Art of Falling also opens in mid-story, though differently. She shows protagonist Penelope as-she-is-now, after certain key events have taken place, but before the main story begins to unfold. Certainly, Craft could have opened the book by showing us the event that landed Penelope in the hospital. Instead, she chose to withhold that event until the reader has had time to bond with the protagonist.
In her recent—and brilliantly structured—book The Last Flight, Julie Clark opens with a short prologue on the day of the flight, the pivotal moment, and everything that follows is told in relation to how long before or after that moment it occurred. It isn’t until the very end of the book that we are back in the “day of” and learn what happened.
One of the most perfect openings ever, to me, is the first line of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” Ng has begun smack in the middle of the story and let the reader know the very thing that the characters will spend most of the book trying to find out. We read to find out why Lydia died and how—something that’s not fully revealed until the very end.
There are many books that proceed from beginning to end, following chronology, just as the King of Hearts recommends. Lily King’s Writers and Lovers and Jennifer Rosner’s The Yellow Bird Sings do that, and it suits the stories they’re telling.
No right or wrong, better or worse. Just different ways to do it. [Read more…]